Image by Petra Eriksson from @artists4longtermcare is a social action initiative that uses art and storytelling to raise awareness of the crisis facing residents and staff in long-term care facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic
I continue to marvel at how very blind we, as a society, are to ageism. Doesn’t anyone else notice that when there’s a cry for help in a crisis, we turn to the older, often retired professionals to lend a helping hand?
Without hesitation we have asked for their return to work even when they are allegedly among the most vulnerable COVID-19 candidates. However, when it comes to everyday living or when recruiting for all types of jobs, we tend to marginalize older people and consider them too old to be the assets that they are.
We acknowledge the experience, expertise, and wisdom older citizens bring in a pandemic can be extremely valuable and reassuring. This repository of experience is not exclusive to professionals in the medical field. Every older person who has ever had a job, a career, an opportunity to work, or volunteer brings with them a solid base of knowledge and skill that can only be lived, not learned. Not all are wise, but they do have experience which, research has shown, trumps knowledge and skill in many circumstances.
The irony that older people are useful in a crisis, whereas several weeks ago they were irrelevant, is staggering. The disregard for older adults’ lives, as seen now in many news reports, has shown the unabashed willingness of many to openly admit that some people have no use for elders and couldn’t care less if they perished.
We have all grown up in a youth-centric world where the young have been revered to the detriment of older generations. It has been inescapable and inevitable. Even we Boomers have a very deep internalized bias against being older. If any one of us has ever thought that some haircut or outfit was not “age appropriate,”we, too, are guilty of some level of unconscious bias. Internalized ageism is not only self-limiting, it limits the potential of an entire segment of society to contribute meaningfully and productively. We Boomers can unwittingly be our own worst enemy.
As this pandemic progresses, we are hearing daily about the older and more vulnerable population in nursing homes and in long-term care facilities. True as it may unfortunately be, these references to fragile, helpless older citizens serve to reinforce the biased narrative of ageing.
Today’s older adults are in fact healthier, better educated and more technically savvy than any previous generation and many are productive contributors to society. They would prefer to stay in the workforce longer, or find meaningful employment. Despite this fact, businesses and organizations continue to minimize their usefulness when retaining or recruiting skilled talent.
Ridding ourselves of ageist bias may soon become a necessary strategy for society, but especially for businesses who want to rebuild quickly once we enter the “new normal” state of affairs. With the demographic shift to one out of four Canadians being 65 or older by 2030, the 50+ population of Canada will be closing in on 50 percent. With a fertility rate that continues to decline and with fierce global competition for skilled immigrants, it would make sense for all to start rethinking what it means to grow older at a time when a 100-year life span is at our fingertips.
Ironic or not, it is profoundly disturbing to see how quickly many revert to old prejudices when convenient. It’s time to acknowledge the flip side. We need to recognize the advantages, benefits and strengths that older adults can provide, not only in this time of crisis, but when we emerge, hopefully, as a stronger and wiser community.
*Originally published in Ottawa Citizen